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Philip Levine - The Mercy

The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island 
Eighty-three years ago was named "The Mercy." 
She remembers trying to eat a banana 
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman 
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her 
with a red bandana and taught her the word,
"orange," saying it patiently over and over. 
A long autumn voyage, the days darkening 
with the black waters calming as night came on, 
then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space
without limit rushing off to the corners 
of creation. She prayed in Russian and Yiddish 
to find her family in New York, prayers 
unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored 
by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness 
before she woke, that kept "The Mercy" afloat 
while smallpox raged among the passengers 
and crew until the dead were buried at sea 
with strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom.
"The Mercy," I read on the yellowing pages of a book 
I located in a windowless room of the library 
on 42nd Street, sat thirty-one days 
offshore in quarantine before the passengers
disembarked. There a story ends. Other ships 
arrived, "Tancred" out of Glasgow, "The Neptune"
registered as Danish, "Umberto IV," 
the list goes on for pages, November gives 
way to winter, the sea pounds this alien shore. 
Italian miners from Piemonte dig 
under towns in western Pennsylvania 
only to rediscover the same nightmare 
they left at home. A nine-year-old girl travels 
all night by train with one suitcase and an orange. 
She learns that mercy is something you can eat 
again and again while the juice spills over 
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back 
of your hands and you can never get enough.

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Poet: Philip Levine
Poem: The Mercy
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